Black Panther: The Accents, The Villain, The Women

Posted on February 25, 2018 at 2:20 pm

Copyright Marvel/Disney 2018

“Black Panther” is now more than a blockbuster, record-smashing superhero movie. It is a genuine cultural phenomenon, with thought-provoking and remarkably nuanced issues of identity, race, gender, and politics, and it has inspired some fascinating commentary.

Slate goes behind the scenes in an interview with Beth McGuire, director of speech and dialects at Yale and dialect coach for the film.

Aisha Harris asks:

In general, even if you’re a classically trained performer, do you think there’s a greater jump from an American accent to an African accent than there would be from a British accent to an African accent?

I think so. It depends on the country, because if you’re doing Liberian, then American’s gonna help you. If you’re doing Rwanda, neither British or America’s gonna help you because it depends on who colonized the country. But if you’re doing Nigerian, then yes, definitely British is gonna help you. If you’re doing South African, you know, that’s a call, because you had the Dutch. Honestly, it depends on who the damn colonizer was.

Copyright Marvel/Disney 2018

I always say that the most important character in a superhero movie is the villain, and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik may be the best bad guy in the history of superhero movies. He isn’t some alien who wants to control the universe. He’s just an American guy who has experienced and witness a lot of injustice. As Ryan Coogler told me in an interview, at the beginning of the film he is more altruistic than the hero. But because of the losses he has suffered, he is a damaged person and his empathy does not extend beyond the people he identifies with.

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer compares Killmonger to X-Men Antihero Magneto:

Killmonger’s stated purpose, to liberate black people all over the world, has sparked a lively discussion over whether he is a bad guy to begin with. What could be so bad about black liberation? “I fist-pumped in the silent, dark theater when he was laying out his plans,” writes Brooke Obie at Shadow and Act. “IT’S A GOOD IDEA!” That Coogler’s villain has even inspired this debate is a testament to how profound and complex the character is.

“In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way,” writes Christopher Lebron in a well-argued piece in Boston Review, “in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks.”

This is not actually what happens in the film. Killmonger’s goal is, in his eyes, the global liberation of black people. But that is not truly his goal, as Coogler makes clear in the text of the script and in Killmonger’s interactions with other characters. Like Magneto, another comic-book character who is a creation of historical trauma—the Holocaust instead of the Middle Passage—Killmonger’s goal is world domination. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” Killmonger declares, echoing an old saying about the British Empire, to drive the point home as clearly as possible. He sees no future beyond his own reign; he burns the magic herbs Wakandan monarchs use to gain their powers because he does not even intend to have an heir.

In The Root, Carolyn Hinds and Clarkisha Kent talk about the themes of duality in the film.

During the challenge ceremony, M’Baku chastises Shuri (because what he sees as a child who is in charge of all the tech in Wakanda and thereby the future of Wakanda) for showing disregard for traditions that T’Challa himself is taking part in. What I also appreciated about that scene was when T’Challa told M’Baku to yield, he did because he realized that his people still needed his leadership.

Now, what Ryan Coogler did so brilliantly with the challenge scene is that at the climax of the film, T’Challa and Killmonger are practically in the same situation, but instead of yielding Killmonger chooses death later on over instead of yielding to T’Challa. When he said that he’d rather be thrown into the sea instead of being in bondage, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut and started to cry because that imagery and history is so real to me that I didn’t pick up on his other reason. Over time, I came to realize that in his mind, Killmonger would rather be dead than owe T’Challa anything—including a life. He chose death over possibly being locked up for what he did.

The gender politics of the film are as thoughtful as the race politics. In the Washington Post, Shanon Lee writes:

From the start, the story avoids the sexist tropes we are accustomed to watching on film. The women’s sex appeal is obvious but secondary to their personality and skill. They are strategic opponents in battle, saving the life of Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) several times over. Equally entrusted with guiding and protecting the nation, they do not need to be rescued, sustained or lauded by men.

When romances are revealed between Nakia and T’Challa, and Okoye and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), we get to see the dynamics of each relationship play out.

And Slate calls Black Panther more feminist than Wonder Woman. “Black Panther confidently performs the tricky balancing act of writing fully realized women characters into a traditionally male-centered narrative by wholeheartedly believing that they are integral to the storytelling.”

TIME’s Arica L. Coleman writes about the real-life inspiration for “Black Panther’s” women warriors.

Copyright Marvel/Disney 2018

In the film, the fictional Dora Milaje — “adored ones,” an all-female military group that protects the King and the fictional nation of Wakanda — are perhaps the most obvious example of female strength. The Dora Milaje were introduced in Black Panther comic by Christopher Priest, who took over as lead writer of the series in 1998; since the series’ relaunch in 2016, they’ve become much more central to the plot. (The title character, who was Marvel’s first African-American superhero, was created in 1966.) In their initial appearance, Priest’s narrator describes the female bodyguards as “Deadly Amazonian high school karate chicks,” who were also the King’s “wives-in training.” While many have speculated about the inspiration behind these warriors, it is clear that one of their main antecedents was the famous all-female African military corps of Dahomey, West Africa (now The Republic of Benin), whom the French dubbed “Dahomey Amazons” after female warriors in Greek mythology.

Those who want to understand the history of the character will enjoy these comments from one of the leading writers on race and politics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written Black Panther comics:

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Black Panther: Behind the Scenes

Posted on February 20, 2018 at 8:25 pm

I was lucky enough to be able to interview “Black Panther” co-writer/director Ryan Coogler for rogerebert.com.

The movie places an African and an African-American in opposition. “I’m an African-American male born in the 1980’s in Oakland,” he said, “and there’s a dynamic between being African and African-American that’s very interesting.” This is a key element he explored in the film, with African characters from the fictional country of Wakanda, which has never been colonized or even had any trade relationships with western countries, and African-American characters, who reflect the stress of living in a country still confronting racial divides.

“The question for me is what does it mean to be African? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I first knew I was black, since my parents sat me down and said, ‘You’re black and that’s what this means. You’ve got to navigate the world in a certain way.’ That’s the conversation every person has had to have because of the way the world works. If you don’t have that understanding you could be in a situation that costs you your life,” as Coogler’s first film, the fact-based “Fruitvale Station,” showed. “Nobody who was telling me what being African means had ever been there. My parents had never been, my grandmother had never been.” So it was essential for him to spend time in Africa, researching the cultures that Wakanda would represent.

“The African culture the world knows best is the African-American culture,” he said, citing the worldwide dominance of hip-hop. But working on the film and spending time in Africa helped him realize that the African culture he thought was erased by bringing Africans to the United States as slaves was much more intact than he thought. “I grew up thinking the African culture had been taken away from us, that it was lost. But the truth is, we didn’t. We hung onto it.”

And as the mother of a costume designer, I was especially excited to speak to Ruth Carter, whose costumes play such an essential role in the film. She talked about the African inspirations for the traditional tribal attire of the Wakandans, and the way African patterns are even reflected in the iconic superhero suit.

Actual African fabric as we know it is Dutch and Dutch-inspired and brought to Africa. Africa liked it and adopted it so all of their African fabrics come from Holland or from China. Wakanda was never colonized, so I didn’t want to use them. Every time I started to use the African fabrics I felt like it was not this movie so I created my own fabrics, based on the sacred geometry of African art. Usually it’s a checkerboard or it’s pyramid shapes or it’s striations of horizontal and vertical strikings so I use that and we created prints. Lupita’s green dress in the casino is one print that we created based on the Nigerian kente cloth. We just extracted the line work and we printed the fabric the same way we printed T’Challa’s superhero suit.

Once I get the illustration of the super suit I can’t change it; I can’t give him a Shaft coat, all of a sudden. I have to stay within those confines because they have already been working with merchandisers and all kinds of other people. The one thing that I did do which was my contribution was the Okavango pattern, a triangle shape.

That fabric is completely made up. The triangle is definitely a big part of African artistry. It’s a mystery within the African culture what that triangle shape actually means and everybody has their own theory. So the panther suit was printed with that triangle shape all over it so that when you’re looking at it, it’s this superhero suit that has this Wakandan language traveling through it; veining throughout it, and you also see an Okavango pattern and which makes it feel like he’s in the place of Wakanda, he’s in Africa and he’s an African king and gives it texture.

Vanity Fair posted a scene analysis with Coogler explaining what was going on in one of the film’s striking action sequences.

More commentary about this brilliant, groundbreaking new film coming soon.

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Mae Abdulbaki on Representation of Middle Eastern People In Movies

Posted on January 29, 2018 at 2:54 pm

Copyright Disney

My friend and fellow critic Mae Abdulbaki has a very thoughtful piece on The Young Folks about the portrayal of Middle Eastern characters and the appearance of actors of Middle Eastern origin in films. Hollywood has a shameful tradition of “browning” white actors for roles in Biblical and historical epics.

To this day, there is still very little representation of Middle Eastern people who aren’t stereotypical terrorists and, if they ever do appear, they’re background characters or there to help white people (sometimes in their own land, see: “Indiana Jones,” “The Mummy” as examples). So when it was announced that there would be a live-action “Aladdin,” I was beyond ecstatic. Finally, a movie that had once been one of the only positive representations of Middle Eastern people on screen was now getting the live-action treatment. But Disney’s adaptation of the beloved animated classic has already hit several bumps in the road–from rumors of not being able to find a Middle Eastern cast, to “browning up” the extras on set–Disney’s inability to properly understand the importance of representation and the need to self-insert a white character where he doesn’t belong proves that the studio, and Hollywood in general, still struggles.

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More on “The Last Jedi”

Posted on January 28, 2018 at 3:36 pm

Copyright 2017 Disney

SPOILERS ALERT!

The most recent “Star Wars” movie has inspired some thoughtful responses and some fascinating behind-the-scenes insights about all of the elements, choices, technologies, and expertise that were included.  As visual effects supervisor Ben Morris said, “It’s just a remarkable piece of filmmaking and action, and I think it started off with the stunts, but the visuals and the sounds are what made it in the end.”

Crafting the Throne Room  One of “The Last Jedi’s” most striking scenes takes place in Snoke’s throne room, and SlashFilm takes us behind the scenes to explain how it was done and what it means.  It is fascinating to see how many From production designer Rick Heinrichs:

When you look toward the throne, you see this almost spinal and rib-like structure above Snoke. So as part of this very elegant, simple shape, there was also an incredibly important sense of power and strength in almost a metaphorically organic way as well…The most important thing for me is that we took the language of the First Order/Empire architecture, and we were able to bend it to our specific use and created something that feels both familiar and novel at the same time.

From writer/director Rian Johnson:

The first thing to say is coming into writing this or any story, the object is not to subvert expectation. The object is not surprise. I think that would lead to some contrived places. The object is drama. And in this case, the object was figuring out a path for each one of these characters where we challenge them and thus learn more about each of them by the end of the movie. So that having been said, Kylo’s arc in this movie I saw as – besides his relationship with Rey – the big arc for Kylo in this movie was breaking down this kind of unstable foundation that he’s on and then building him to where by the end of the film he’s no longer just a Vader wannabe, but he’s stepped into his own as kind of a quote unquote villain, but a complicated villain that you understand, right?

On Uproxx, Johnson explains more about what he had in mind for the confrontation between Kylo Ren and Snoke.

And I like Bitter Gertrude’s view on the “subversive” qualities of “The Last Jedi.” Melissa Hillman writes:

Star Wars has always had its finger on the pulse of the cultural fear of the moment. In the original trilogy in the 1970s and early 80s, it was The Man– an evil establishment that needed to be purified by a younger generation. In the prequels of the 90s, it was evil corporations secretly colluding with a corrupt government to create endless war.

Now, in early 21st century America, the villain is an unstable young white man who had every privilege in life, yet feels like the world has wronged him. Unbeknownst to his family, he finds and communicates with a faraway mentor who radicalizes him with a horrific, authoritarian ideology. By the time his family finds out, it’s too late, and now this unstable young white man has this horrific ideology, access to far too many weapons, and the desperate desire to demolish anything that he perceives as a threat– or is told to perceive as a threat…The Resistance is impressive in its casual diversity. Women and people of color are valued for their expertise as a matter of course; nowhere does the film congratulate itself on its diversity by making a huge point of highlighting it, demonstrating white male benevolence by the generous inclusion of women and people of color, positing a white male audience nodding along, agreeing that we are so wonderful for allowing our White Male World to donate a very small corner for the Less Fortunate. The Resistance is naturally diverse, and no one even seems to notice. That is masterfully subversive.

And The Guardian calls it “triumphantly feminist.”

Among the approving voices is Annalise Ophelian, a documentary film-maker and psychologist whose current project, Looking for Leia, is about girls and women in Star Wars fandom. “The Last Jedi depicts women as multi-faceted, multi-generational, multi-racial. There are women in strong leadership positions and women who occupy student/learner positions,” she says.

The Last Jedi also contains what Ophelian says is the “first truly Bechdel Test passing scene” in the history of the franchise. “Female heroes are traditionally presented in cinematic isolation. This film gives us women working side by side, women in technical positions, and of course women learning the ways of the Force.”

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What Should Red Carpet Coverage Look Like?

Posted on January 8, 2018 at 9:10 pm

 

The New York Times, which broke the story about the abuse by Harvey Weinstein, is changing the way it reports on the red carpet at awards shows.

Red carpets have always been a clash of fame, sponsored content and super-cute shoes. The red carpet is where huge, powerful industries — celebrity, fashion, Hollywood, media, beauty, publicity — meet. Now that the curtain is finally being lifted on some of the grimy underbelly of Hollywood, we feel it’s more important than ever to not treat awards shows as silly things for silly people.

Given the enormity of our cultural reckoning in the last year with how women are treated in the workplace, on the internet and in Hollywood, we want to take a fresh look at how we cover this stuff. We have some plans about how to recognize the cultural moment — and would love to hear from readers about what you would like to see (and not see).

I’ll be very interested to see where this goes.  I don’t watch red carpet coverage (and won’t do it anymore myself) because it is so vapid.  I hope they ask people on the red carpet about why the projects were so important to them and what they hope people will think about what they see.  And that they give credit to the hard work of the designers they are wearing, too.

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